The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh (2011)

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by Mark Saleski

In the recent Southern Music issue of the Oxford American, musician John Engle speaks of “The Vastness,” the idea that the world’s store of knowledge is so vast that “if you tried to take it all on at once it would crush you.” It’s true. And there are many points of entry. These days, the most obvious culprit is the Internet but I’m going for something a little more focused — the history of music. Even tighter: the history of music by way of The Low Anthem.

This might seem like a huge burden to be draped over four musicians from Providence, Rhode Island, but my notion of “The Vastness” carries no danger, just a feeling of wonder — at the seemingly unending supply of music available, both from the past and out into the future.

But how can I comment on music’s future? Easy. While listening to The Low Anthem’s Smart Flesh, it occurred to me that the naysayers are wrong — that somebody will always have the urge to either shine a light on the past or to reflect history out to the future. In the case of The Low Anthem: both.

With the addition of Mat Davidson, The Low Anthem (the former trio: Ben Knox Miller, Jocie Adams, Jeff Prystowsky) have not so much extended their sound as distilled it. Many of the stylistic elements found Oh My God, Charlie Darwin are here — folk, country ballads, blues, gospel — but they’re intensified by a directness of presentation: voice, instruments, air, echo. Maybe it’s the still-vibrating history of the old Porino’s pasta sauce factory, or maybe it’s the group creativity getting a boost from the lineup change, but Smart Flesh manages to take all of these old-timey sonics and make them new.

Opening with “Ghost Woman Blues,” the band’s strengths are apparent: piano set off in the distance, gorgeous, country-influenced vocal harmonies, and a clarinet solo that punctuates the song’s theme. The Low Anthem stress plain, unadorned sounds; finding the perfect atmosphere for each song. So we get the addition of pedal steel guitar on the country-ish “Apothecary Love,” a musical saw that manages to push the old-time gospel feel of “Burn,” and soaring vocals (accompanied by a single guitar) on “Love and Altar.” When simple is called for, there’s “Matter of Time,” with Ben Knox Miller’s voice recorded very intimately, accompanied by the pump organ (and later, a lone harmonica). A similar approach is taken on the sad and lovely “I’ll Take Out Your Ashes,” a country ballad painted with Miller’s voice, a banjo, and Jocie’s Adams’ bowed crotales.

None of this is to say that The Low Anthem doesn’t enjoy a good stomp now and then. For that we have the anthemic “Hey All You Hippies” as well as “Boeing 737,” supported by huge swells of horns. It’s just a reminder that there are a lot of stories to tell out there, and many ways to tell them. Adams’ “Wire” takes the far end of the spectrum, with three ghostly clarinets woven together.

Smart Flesh ends with its title track, a waltz so full of imagery and creaky instrumentation (again, the bowed saw and what sounds like the world’s biggest jaw harp) that it wouldn’t be out of place on a Tom Waits record. A fitting conclusion, what with Mr. Waits being a co-conspirator in the Church of What’s Old Is New. Also, another artist who knows about “The Vastness.” Don’t be afraid. It won’t crush you.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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